A drag queen performs at Temptations, Wendy McCown-Williams bar in Cookeville. (Photo: Submitted)
For Wendy McCown-Williams, life as a transgender woman and a gay bar owner in a small Tennessee community can be a fine line to walk.
Tennessee ended this year’s legislative session with multiple anti-transgender bills, and most recently passed a bill requiring businesses and government facilities to post a sign stating if they let transgender people use their bathroom.
There’s no way of knowing how many people will be affected by the law, but a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality stated there may be fewer than 500 trans people living in Tennessee, although advocates believes there’s an undercount.
And while Nashville’s District Attorney Glenn Funk announced his refusal to enforce the new Tennessee law, others questioned how the logistics of the law would be enforced elsewhere.
For instance, asked McCown-Williams, did Tennessee Republicans really expect a trans, gay-bar owner to put up a sign making the LGBT community feel bad for using the bathroom?
“Ridiculous,” she said.
Life in the Country
There’s a delicate balance of being openly supportive of the local LGBT community and leading an unassuming existence among conservative peers.
While strides have been made in recent years to improve LGBT rights, the trans community still faces many hurdles and obstacles, especially in the South.
Trans people face higher rates of homeless, violence, discrimination and poverty. These rates are even worse for trans people of color, who are more likely to be killed. At least 28 trans people were murdered this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Jack Knoxville, the founder of Trans Empowerment Project, said that living in Tennessee made him realize that few support systems available to the trans community.
Even in the city, trans people still experience difficulty receiving healthcare, and because of job discrimination, many trans people lack access to insurance that would cover the care they need.
“The world is not created for us to thrive, so we had to create our own support systems,” said Knoxville.
These support systems are even more scarce in rural communities.
For McCown-Williams, operating Cookeville’s only gay bar, Club Temptation, means being constantly aware that she owns a gay bar in a town of 33,000 people.
Every business decision has to be weighed against possible negative attention. When she hosted a cookout for regular customers and employees, she made a conscious decision not to allow children at the bar, fearful of the backlash. When she decided to put up Joe Biden election signs, Trump supporting-customers stopped coming.
Living in a rural community, McCown-Williams was aware she was many people’s first impression of a trans person, which pushed her into being a public figure. She now serves on the Putnam County Election Commission.
Still, it’s a difficult existence.
As one of the few openly-trans people of color, Knoxville’s personal life is often scrutinized.
“I constantly felt so policed. Everything that I said and everything that I did was under a microscope,” said Knoxville.
This sentiment was echoed by Brandon Thomas, an openly gay man from Smyrna who has run twice for state representative.
“I think demystification is just something we have to do, and sometimes it’s just simply existing,” he said.
As right-wing activists continue to push misconceptions about the trans community, McCown-Williams hopes that “just living my life as a human being,” is enough to change people’s minds.
While there are people that are unsupportive of the trans community, there’s still a disconnect between the average Joe working in a small town and far-right conservatives pushing anti-trans bills.
Although advocates believe the actual number of trans people is undercounted, discriminatory policies have made it difficult for them to go out into public spaces for fear of confrontation.
I think demystification is just something we have to do, and sometimes it's simply existing.
– Brandon Thomas, Smyrna
McCown-Williams said she’s never had issues using a public bathroom and called the policy an example of fear-tactic politics and impossible to enforce.
“In all my years have I ever recalled a time that someone gave me a dirty look or stopped me from using the bathroom,” she said.
“It’s not trans people that are sexualizing the situation; it’s politicians,” said Knoxville.
As for why she chose to operate a gay bar in a Cookeville, McCown-Williams recognized the need for a LGBT-friendly space.
Growing up in Kentucky, McCown-Williams spent years confused about her own identity. It wasn’t until she met another transgender woman that she finally felt comfortable with her own skin.
Since she took over the gay bar, she’s pushed to create a safe environment for the local LGBT community, recognizing Club Temptation may be the only place people find a safe haven.
Pride Month at the bar means raising money for LGBT charities and highlighting local community leaders that have made the area easier for LGBT people.
Just a few weeks ago, a frequent customer told McCown-Williams she had come out as a trans woman and had been kicked out of her family home. The bar gave her somewhere to go.
This is the role nearly every gay bar plays for the LGBT community, said McCown-Williams, and because of this she balances her politics will coexisting with the more conservative voices in the community.
“Overall I’m very blessed that they let me be but I don’t ruffle feathers,” she said. “There’s just some things I have to accept.”
For the most part, this tactic has worked. In the four years Club Temptation has been in operation, it has become a regular hangout for most people. Weekend activities mean hosting anything from kinky trivia, karaoke and drag shows. Her clientele has been straight and gay, who book anything from bachelorettes to birthdays.
“Once you walk through the door, we don’t care if you’re gay, straight, Democrat or Republican,” she said.
Although the bathroom law is just the latest hurdle for the business, and she may still see the occasional bigoted sign, McCown-Williams believe rural America is slowly growing more accepting of her community.
“I was told by people that they never thought they would see a Pride event in Cookeville or see a trans woman serve in politics,” she said.
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